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A safe return to classes

Masks, social distancing, sanitizing measures at WC schools aim to keep students learning

School districts across the state are working to keep their students and staff safe as school resumes this fall in the midst of a pandemic. Several districts, including some not so far from Webster City, are struggling with outbreaks of COVID-19.

But in Webster City, that doesn’t seem to be the case. On Friday, Dr. Mandy Ross, superintendent at Webster City Schools, tweeted out congratulations to her staff, students and parents.

“Thanks to the hard work of our students, staff and families, we have ZERO reported positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff this week! Keep vigilant! #GoLynx #MaskUp.”

In a recent interview with the Daily Freeman-Journal, Ross said so far this fall, everything seems to be running smoothly, in spite of all the changes and adaptations the district has made to meet statewide mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Honestly, I could not be more pleased with the way the year has started,” she said. “I think we made some changes over the course of the summer that really had a big impact on things starting well.”

The district started the school year Aug. 24 and 25 with in-person orientations with the students’ homeroom teachers, who set out and explained procedures for this unusual year of the coronavirus pandemic. Ross said the teachers and administrators in the district felt the conferences were a success.

“They all were saying they felt like they knew the parents better and they had a better understanding of the child who was coming into the classroom,” she said.

She said that in meetings with administrators she’s found that for the most part, things are running fairly smoothly so far.

“There are have been a couple of things, here or there, that we’re working through. And it’s not district wide, it’s just little pockets of situations,” she said.

About 7 percent of the district’s students are starting the year as remote learners. That equals about 125 of the 1,787 students in the district. The highest number is at the 11th grade level with 17 students learning at home.

Ross stressed that the remote learning through the district is not the same as home schooling. The remote learners access lessons through a learning platform designated by the district and have regular contact with designated instructors at the school.

“In the elementary grade levels, we have a couple of teachers identified who work directly with the remote-learning families. At the secondary level, there’s a combination of the instructional coaches helping the classroom teachers work with students,” she said.

In order to help parents stay connected with what is going on in their child’s school building, Ross said the district is working with its public relations firm to develop videos for each school.

The classrooms have been set up so there is a three-foot social distance between student desks and learning spaces. Both students and teachers are wearing face coverings — either cloth masks or face shields, which the district has provided to students.

“Some of the teachers have put up plexiglass shields around their desks, depending upon what their comfort levels are as well as their underlying health conditions,” she explained. Some teachers have marked off social distancing space with taped lines on the floor.

At the end of day, the classrooms are cleaned with electrostatic sanitizing machines. The face shields are put on the desks to they, too, can be thoroughly cleaned.

Pleasant View Elementary

The littlest students in the district are adapting well to the changes in routine and procedure that arrived with the new school year, according to Pleasant View Elementary Principal Mindy Mossman.

“We’re wearing either a shield or a face mask,” she said. “The are just doing great with it. They don’t complain at all and they are totally in with it.”

Mossman said the students, pre-kindergarten through first grade, are adapting well to to the new procedures including hand washing and hand sanitizing and social distancing.

“They hold their arms out to their sides and they are trying to stay an arms length away,” she said. Other times during the day, such as when the students are singing, they all extend their arms to be sure they stay six-feet apart.

At lunchtime, most classes are eating in the classrooms.

“They just love eating in the classroom,” she said. “They are eating really well. We kind of think the quieter environment is helping with that. They get to talk with their friends during that time and sometimes we put on science videos to watch while they eat.”

Weather permitting, students can also eat or meet for lessons outside, thanks to some borrowed picnic tables from the city of Webster City. Recesses are kept to just a class with its cohort class.

Mossman said the school is careful to keep travel between classrooms and hallways to a minimum.

When children are waiting for parents to pick them up after school, Mossman said the youngsters each have a socially distanced painted paw print to stand on.

“So they stay with their classrooms out there, too,” she said.

Many of the changes are working so well, Mossman said, that they may be kept in place after the pandemic subsides.

Sunset Heights Elementary

Principal Kelli Reis said students at Sunset Heights, grades two through four, are also adapting well to the new procedures.

“Wearing face coverings are not an issue for them,” she said. “I’m really proud of how well they are doing.”

Some classes get to experience “fine dining” at Sunset Heights. That’s what they are calling the lunches delivered to the classrooms.

“Some stay in their classrooms, some go to the music/art room and we’re doing delivery to them,” Reis said.

To achieve social distancing, the students, like their counterparts at Pleasant View, practice “airplane arms” – with arms extended out to the sides to maintain the distance.

Classrooms have had to be adapted to the new normal – back to the old-school desks in rows or working at tables with dividers, according to Reis.

“We’ve done away with some of the movement within the rooms,” she said. “And the kids are handling it really well. They are just happy to be back.”

At each grade level, the recesses have been doubled. Cohort classes stay together for recesses and for lunches, too. When it comes to specials, the students stay in the classroom and the specials teacher comes to them.

PE, weather permitting is held outside, Reis said. If they can’t go outside, the students have PE in the gym with activities that allow for social distancing.

Reis said the community has been very supportive in helping get students back to the classroom. Local businesses and groups worked together to provide water bottles to students, since the drinking fountains have been shut down.

“We have a fill station and the kids fill up their water bottles to use during the day,” she said. “Then they take them home at night to clean them.”

Like Pleasant View, Sunset Heights has some borrowed picnic tables, thanks to the City of Webster City.

“Classes can go outside if they choose to or they can go out for a ‘mask break.’ Some are doing their independent reading outside as well,” she said.

Team effort

Ross said her administrative teams, teachers and community members who worked on plans for the district’s return to school totaled nearly 50 people.

“(The planning) wasn’t done in isolation,” she said. “We had to do some coordinating with Iowa Central. We’re checking continually with other districts to see how they are handling things.”

She gives lots of credit to Shelby Kroona, Hamilton County Public Health director, who has been involved in the development of plans for the school year.

“We’re not an island unto ourselves,” she said. “And that’s important for everyone to understand. We have to work together in all of this.”

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